The day I diced with death

Gary Maas tells of his days as a snake collector in Durban, and how he came within a whisker of death

I think all of my life I’ve been a worker, from my early days selling avocados to the neighbours in Durban’s Essenwood Road to cleaning windscreens at my dad’s Mobil garage, Essenwood Service Station. I also worked at the Durban Drive-in, where I would take money at the gate and help serve in the canteen. I was paid R2 a night for my troubles. I would look at the car coming in. The occupants paid 50 cents per person to get in. Then you would get the car with one bloke in it. We would check where he parked and eventually three people would pile out. Anything to save R1,50. Times were tough in those days.

Then I started catching snakes. I could sell a night adder to Fitsimons Snake Park on the beachfront for R2, bushsnakes for R5. Wow! Real money and easy money.

If you look for snakes, you find them. Our areas were Amanzimtoti, up Entombeni Drive, looking on the banks and sides of the roads. The old water meter boxes were the best, open them up and there would be red-lipped heralds, house snakes and sand snakes. We would put them in cloth bags my mom sewed for me and then hitch a ride back to the Berea.

‘Collecting butterflies’

I remember a very kind old gentleman giving us a lift from Toti to Berea Station, only a three-mile walk to my home in Essenwood Road. We always told people we had been collecting butterflies for the biology lab at school. We thanked him for the lift and waved him goodbye. Checking the one bag of heralds and house snakes, we realised the bag had come loose at the top and we had lost about eight snakes in the back of his car. I’m guessing he never gave any kids a lift again.

From then on, we also made sure the bags were sealed.

It was more profitable catching snakes and taking them to the snake park than working at the drive-in!

I remember collecting snakes in Phoenix one morning, lifting old pieces of corrugated iron and piles of bricks. We were rewarded after lifting a large pile of asbestos sheeting with a shiny black snake which seemed to have no tail. I grabbed it and it bit me on my left hand and finger. The burning pain shot up my arm like a red-hot needle and when it hit my chest, I could hardly breathe.

Dropped like a stone

I was with my mate, Allan, who took the snake out of my hand with welding gloves and put it into the bag. I was very fit in those days, walking 10 to 20 miles a day, playing rugby and doing long-distance competitive running. I dropped like a stone to the ground.

We used to carry snake serum with us, but thank goodness he broke the vial and could not inject me. As it happened, if he had done so, I would have died. I was semi-conscious at that stage.

Luckily, a police van stopped to find out what was wrong. They put me in the back of the van and took me to the snake park.

I vaguely remember Allan Parker, its curator, saying: “That’s Gary Maas, the snake is a ‘bibron’s adder’, get him to Addington Hospital, he has about half an hour to live!”

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I remember them injecting the serum and all hell breaking loose. I was allergic to it and lost consciousness, waking up with the paddles on my chest. Talk about the white light and tunnel of lights.

I saw it all, people don’t believe me on this one, but it was very, very real. I was in a coma at Addington for six weeks. I don’t remember anything about that time, but the doctor told my folks, “your son has taken a turn for the worst and you had better come down and spend time with him”.

Things I cannot explain

That night I saw things I still cannot explain. At the end of my bed was this person in a black robe with a hood. I could not see his face, but it felt as though I was being pulled towards him. “Stuff this,” I thought, “I don’t like the look of him.”

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He started to fade, a white light or tunnel forming around this vision, and he disappeared.

Then I woke up and, boy, was I hungry. I demanded breakfast, bacon and eggs, the nurses and doctors were amazed. My folks arrived shortly thereafter.

How close I was to death no-one will ever know, not even me, but it was an experience I remember to this day.

Contact Gary Maas: 082 413 5003